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"In the music business you always get, 'You would be good, but you need to have the right connections,'" says Kroma, who performs simply under the name Kanjia. "My chances are a lot better now. With the Trak Starz, they've got the reputation of making sure hot acts come out right."
It's a reputation well deserved, the reggae artist attests.
"If I have a concept for a song, Zo can get on the keyboard and create it, just based on what I'm telling him. They're trying to capture what I'm bringing out, but they bring a different sound to the table -- more lively, more pulse."
"We want to do exactly what we did with Chingy -- to be able to locate regional, local talent, and pipeline that talent to the industry and showcase what's going on here," Lee passionately filibusters. "Major labels tend to follow trends, and very few of them even know what's good and what's not good. It's guys like Sham and I -- and other producers here -- who can go to clubs and hear what's actually good. Guys [in Los Angeles] sit in offices and don't know what's really good. They might sign somebody who's a friend of theirs, as opposed to somebody who actually deserves to be heard."
STL and Kanjia probably won't release their debuts until next year, but you may be able to hear them sooner on a compilation album the Starz have planned, tentatively scheduled for this summer. Under the moniker Trak Starz Present..., the album will feature local and national talent. While they're at it, the Starz are working on an album of their own, featuring Lee and Daugherty taking turns on the mic. Out of Order is also slated to weigh in with a comeback album, in an effort to keep the focus as much on the Starz themselves as the artists they're working with.
"The more visible you become, the more power you have," Lee explains, noting that the music industry has traditionally resisted putting a face on producers.
"It's no secret that they try to shut you out," Daugherty adds. He cites Dr. Dre, Quincy Jones and the Neptunes as inspirations who weren't content to remain behind the scenes.
But anonymity seems to be the last thing the Starz have to worry about. In addition to Chingy's "One Call Away" video, their mugs graced recent issues of hip-hop magazines The Sourceand XXL. And now, they say, they're negotiating a reality series for VH1 in which they'll take a passé rap star of yesteryear and turn him into a viable market force. The show, titled Remaking the Band, has tentatively slotted none other than Robert Van Winkle, a.k.a. Vanilla Ice, for the makeover. (VH1 spokeswoman Tracy McGraw confirms that the pilot is in development.)
And although CBS won't confirm it, the Starz say they also plan to drop in for an episode or two on a new reality show on that network that will plant Ludacris in a house in England to record his new album amid stuffy servants speaking in proper parlance.
Imagine the culture clash, yo.
"Let's take this shit to his mama house!" a David Banner CD screams in the background as Daugherty relaxes on his Beverly Hills hotel bed.
Back in LA, the Starz have learned that their meeting with Interscope Records president Jimmy Iovine has been pushed back. (They'll see him the next day. "He was in this big office, sitting on a couch with a little pillow with his name stitched in it," Daugherty will say. "He kind of reminded me of a Mafia figure. He had different people from the office stepping in and out, checking in on him. To see him you have to get past all these security guards, like this big fortress." Iovine did not return phone and e-mail requests for an interview for this story.)
With a few hours to kill before the next scheduled meeting -- with Universal -- they're chillin' at Le Meridien. Lee has his own room, while Daugherty is sharing his posh setup with the Starz' "writing team," Jay Hanna and Tony Roberts. They're ostensibly here to help write lyrics for whatever artist the Starz happen to be working with, but Hanna's and Roberts' presence doesn't always appear to be entirely imperative. But Daugherty clearly likes having them around, and Hanna doesn't mind sleeping on the room's loveseat. "I was in the service," the latter explains. "I can handle anything."
Daugherty, though, is feeling less adaptable. Between complaints about the slow room service and the absence of MTV on cable, he makes it clear he's unimpressed with the digs. The Starz usually stay at Le Montrose in West Hollywood, he says, but that's impossible for this late-February jaunt -- they're all booked up for the Oscars.
But he perks up when he describes his new north-county pad. "My first dream house -- real spacious, real futuristic," he says. When it's completed, he says, the space will boast a movie theater with a dozen seats, a pool table, a water fountain and -- like Lee's new house in Lake St. Louis -- a recording studio.